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Consider What Becomes of the Ashes

Chapter 3.

The breeze does not touch Auldemon. Night brings no respite from the heat, sleep is rarely possible. Noah wants to scream to make the flames leave him. Screaming will only scare away the chance of finding water, finding cool. Noah thinks of women and lazy ceiling fans so much he decides he hates both women and wind. Only hatred could justify his obsession; he does not love them. The heat takes him away from himself, beyond hope for better.

Noah dreams.

Of women from home, in bright festival skirts and drunken with delight. They spin to celebrate some occasion, and Noah spins with them, but they are all in LaGatta, this city born for festivals. No, a flaw; the city invents its festivals to suit its own purpose, but the city's purposes are depraved. The festival Noah celebrates is for the breaking.

Broken, Noah is the city, of jagged rooves and stone roots in fouled earth. He reaches, and cannot clasp, the sky which rises ever higher. Yet a city without a sky is incomplete, false, purple velvet stained black by the light of the moon who weeps, and Noah drowns in salty tears.

He protests, 'But I only wanted a drink of water, please give me a drink of water, please, I'm so thirsty.'

For him, the moon melts, fills the streets with silver surrender, splashing and spraying, thick and milky until the soft torrent covers the city.

It does nothing to stop the way the city bursts into flame.

The night is fire and the city revolves, roasting itself slowly on a sharpened spit of spite. Fat melts from the upper levels and heaves along every jagged roof, white and thick and shining grease; when it hits the flaming street the fat becomes thick wriggling white worms, coiling about streetlamps and signalling, fat white fingers shining in the humid dripping firelight. Revolted, Noah approaches. He is so hungry. He has nowhere else to go.

'Hey,' says a voice, 'you're sick.'

Noah might be sick. He cannot tell. He is too hot, floating in the heat rising from his flesh. He opens his eyes and leaves the dream behind. The face staring down at him is male, grimed and bearded, age indefinite.

'I have a place. Water, ice, shade.' The man nudges him with a wrapped foot. 'You only bones, Badenson. You die next week your eyes boiled dry. Not raining here for years, decades.'

Noah is happy with that. He curls tighter. The man nudges him again. 'You let me fuck you in the mouth a couple of times you can sleep in my place until you better. Just your mouth, Badenson. Not gonna fuck you in the arse, only for perverts and prisoners and soldiers. You no pervert or prisoner or soldier, I seen you cruising. Not gonna fuck you in the arse, you too old. You got bitch-cold eyes, Badenson, like winter died in your ears, you don't look at me no more, look down, down. You don't want to die. You follow me.'

Noah thinks maybe he does want to die, but the man did not give him a choice. You don't want to die: so told, Noah doesn't want to die. Noah doesn't want. Fever rages like a forgotten flame. The way is long. There is no removal of clothing. Noah thinks he should want to kill a man who touches him, but he kneels before an indefinite shape of rag and shamble and cannot find a man. Noah spits after and the strand goes on forever, white to yellow. Noah realises at some point he started vomiting through his jaw stretched to aching, and did not notice.

The chill is a relief, scavenged ice melting in a metal tray with old melon among the shards, a fan blowing across the top. But it stinks, the mattress worst of all. He sleeps in the corner, on wet stone.

Noah dreams. Only perverted old men can talk to the gods, but the gods are flowers, and Noah can only pick one. When the flowers all burn, there are no choices left.

In the morning Noah vomits again, drinks, eats the melon and sleeps through the day and night. He wakes to find Auldemon thick with a dirty grey snow, the ash from some industry sunk to the lowest level. Noah lets ice melt in a depression in the floor and scrubs himself with a precious sliver of soap until he and his clothes are uniformly grey. He stays only until they dry. LaGatta welcomes him back with a warm fist to the gut.

In Auldemon, Imperial guards are rare. There are opportunities Noah could not risk in the higher levels, streets known for what he offers, to the side of the main road leading outside LaGatta's wide gates.

The carriages, cars, carts pass Noah by, mostly, the horses, the few steaming vehicles owned by the richest, windows darkened to the sun. Twenty will fly past together; legitimate traffic. His eyes flick from the first to the second and onwards, too swift to focus, too swift for him to build hope or hatred for the one that will slow and draw to the side. Sometimes there is nothing flying by, only the walkers, scouts for rich masters or deviants in search of a whore who fits their price and needs. The boredom is intense. Noah cranes his neck to the limited sky visible from Auldemon's over-bright, narrow streets. At night there are stars, during the day, sometimes a cloud, or a bird.

No wind blows. Noah remembers what rain looks like, the greyness coming in across a green landscape, remembers the sound as each droplet sings to meet its sister, but he cannot remember its touch. On the other side of the concourse a cluster of well-dressed girls surround a single young boy wearing the Imperial Military Association's fine black uniform, picking their way through the refuse. Slumming. They talk among themselves. The boy looks at Noah from across the way and says something. His smile twists; the girls laugh. Noah stays on his side of the concourse, his feet tracing paths in the ash fallen from above.

A carriage slows.

He does not want to move while the girls and the one fine dressed boy are still there, laughing at him, but he must. Inside the car, he sees only a man with white hair. Noah backs away, but not too far. Rich women send their drivers.

Familiarity tickles only once the man laughs at him, and speaks in Badenstongue.

'Been a few years, hasn't it, boy?'

'What do you want?'

The white-haired man tells him to come back. Not the halls; but not quite the same as before. The rate is far less.

'You've almost managed to make yourself thin, you know? Nothing like hunger to strip the bulk off a man. Not fashionable, for an exotic. LaGattan men are already thin, soft.'

Noah tells the man no.

In two days only one driver invites him to a home. Noah steals several bottles of perfume, the candlesticks from the hall and a palm-sized statue of a carved woman catching his fancy. When he leaves in the hours after midnight, the housemaid stops him, strips him without regret and reclaims the loot. The house guards bend him over the edge of a fountain's elaborate marble, rip trousers and shirt away, and flog him. Noah does not raise a hand to defend. The pair smoke as they beat him. Noah cannot look away from the reflection of those glowing red eyes, deep in the fountain's mirror. The darkness is a void, staring back.

The most difficult part is yet to come. Noah hides behind a fat woman and her many brats to catch a cab. He rides for a while, and leaps for freedom when the driver's offsider notices their extra passenger. He runs for much longer than any pursuit would bother, and only slows to a walk when he reaches the street with a single bastard brick Badenstee drinking hall. Noah stands at the door until his breath steadies. He spits a mouthful of bitterness to the side. This place is a scene of great historical significance, the site of battles won and lost. Entering grieves Noah. He will always walk the same path no matter how he runs.

A clockwork man, once wound and winding down. Noah sits, and does not order a drink. The white-haired man nods at him as he sits opposite, grinning.

'I have reconsidered your offer,' Noah says, in clear LaGattan. The man agrees, and does not offer him a cigarette.

'Up close, you're looking your age. Take a week to put meat back on your bones. You'll have to learn some new tricks, even if you're just doing the houses. Let's hope you're not too old a dog.'

Noah is relieved. He will not have to wait any longer, nor hope for carriages to slow. It was always such a petty thing on which to waste his hope. He is better without.

The lady snivels.

Noah says nothing. Her makeup had been thick enough to mask denial, but her tears destroy the device. Fear knots Noah's throat. He is sometimes terrified of how unknowingly he can inflict pain, even making love. He has not blooded her; he checked himself when he withdrew, unable to touch for the knots holding his hands to the bed's frame. Blood is dangerous. The woman recovers herself quickly, wiping her cheeks on satin pillows, leaving behind yellow smears.

'Sorry. What a fuss! I suppose I was a bit ambitious. A Badenson!' She hastens to loose him, still trembling. 'Whatever was I thinking?'

The lady's townhouse is on Quinten. Noah has an hour until his permission expires. The sky is clear. Noah walks into a park to lie on the grass and stare at that blue nothingess. He cannot see the sky from his apartment on First, where the white-haired man houses him in a room with four other men, one a Diviny, none of whom speak LaGattan.

The sky blinks at him.

The blue enormity makes no judgments. Noah is too small for the sky to notice; he is comforted. Noah drifts into sleep. He has nothing to dream today.

He dreams he has a dream.

He walks the same route he walks every day, through a city devoted to beauty, with architecture spaced generously and holy in form and rarity. Sunlight comes clear and cool, without obstacle along every breezy street, where there are no trees to create cold shadows. Yet without trees there is no need for sunlight, so the streets turn cold, grey, lit by a forest of artificial lights. Beneath each lamp a gleaming body displays itself, goods in a window not there, but in this city all the buyers are the sellers, and everyone who bids for flesh has mouths for eyes.

Noah is hungry. Noah is so hungry. The city has fountains flaring like orgasms; Noah pisses in one, with his hand bloodied on his cock. The red floods the fountain, stained and spreading, until the fountain spews thick crimson flames.

Noah is afraid.

The city is devoted to beauty, but beauty is impossible; the city is devoted to impossibility; the city is impossible. All beauty ages, all age is decay; the city is devoted to decay. Time is a fountain that fires only once. The fountain spits fire and Noah's skin tightens with roaring flame.

Noah throws himself into the flame.

He wants to drown, but instead the flame embraces him. Clinical, the flame explores every orifice of his body until it opens even the pores of his skin with its probing tendrils. The touch is icy cold, like the doctor's weekly shafts of steel hunting for illnesses outlawed by the city, as though even viruses must obey LaGattan law. Steel fingers of flame fiddle in Noah's ears and change the path of his brain. Noah is not afraid any more. Fingers of flame fill his bowels from both ends, jaw and legs stretched wide. Noah does not want to move. Clean flame fills him, and he will never be hungry again. Flame gently takes him apart. His legs are seared off at the hip and tucked under a badly-made wooden bunk. His arms are made brittle, and snap off deftly to be hung behind the door. Flame lays Noah on the bed and gently tucks the sheet to his neck.

'Goodnight,' Noah says, and the flame lovingly cuts off his head.

Continue to Chapter 4

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